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L.A.'S NEW MAYOR

Ethics Reform Elusive

Villaraigosa's proposals to clean up City Hall are a good start, but don't go far enough and some may be difficult to implement, experts say.

June 30, 2005|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who promised on the campaign trail to run a more ethical administration, has a plan to "clean house" and toughen City Hall ethics rules.

"On the first day, I'm going to remove every lobbyist from our commissions," he reiterated recently, indicating that he intends to set a tone for strict adherence to ethical standards starting with his Friday inauguration.

As dramatic as that sounds, Villaraigosa's pledge will have little effect on the city's 300-plus commissioners. Just four are lobbyists and two of them have already submitted their resignations. Ethics experts say that Villaraigosa's ethics proposals are an improvement, but do not go far enough. They point out that Villaraigosa has failed to back a long-stalled initiative that would halt the flow of donations to city candidates from people who hope to win lucrative contracts from city government.

"There is a persistent perception by the public that all levels of government exist in a 'pay to play' environment," said Susan Lerner of the California Clean Money Campaign. "This kind of activity reinforces that cynicism."

During the campaign, Villaraigosa repeatedly questioned the ethics of Mayor James K. Hahn's administration, reminding voters that a federal and county grand jury are investigating whether city contracts were linked to political contributions.

Villaraigosa also criticized Hahn for appointing some of his key fundraisers to top staff and commission posts, and he pledged to "appoint deputy mayors based on knowledge, experience and integrity." So far, he has appointed five senior staff members, and all of them have primary experience in government, not political fundraising.

A council panel has separately recommended that commissioners be banned from being paid for lobbying. But, apparently out of deference to Villaraigosa, a vote by the full council has not been scheduled until next week.

Of the four current lobbyists on commissions, Board of Neighborhood Empowerment Commission President Ronald Stone resigned Wednesday and Water and Power Commission President Dominick Rubalcava resigned, but volunteered to serve until Villaraigosa can make an appointment.

The other lobbyists are Parks Commission Chairman Mike Roos and Convention and Exhibition Center Authority Vice Chairwoman Carol Schatz.

Rubalcava says the ban is unreasonable. "I think it's unnecessary because the conflict of interest laws are very clear, and I don't believe there has been a problem," he said.

He said the ban applies to paid lobbyists but not to attorneys and union officials, who are also paid to influence City Hall but who do not register as lobbyists.

"I do believe that's unfair," he said.

Rebecca Avila, chairwoman of California Common Cause, said the council could also consider the role of union representatives, but defended the proposed ban on lobbyists. "Commissions have an important role in providing public accountability into decision-making," Avila said. "If you are a lobbyist, your job is to represent the interests of the people who pay you."

Daniel Tokaji, former chairman of California Common Cause, said Villaraigosa's banishment of lobbyists from commissions, "may accomplish something but, by itself, isn't sufficient to curb improper influence by high-priced lobbyists."

In response to criticism, Villaraigosa said his ban on lobbyist-commissioners is just the start of his reform effort.

The mayor-elect has proposed a dozen other reforms that good-government advocates say are fine initial steps, although some may prove impractical or face legal hurdles.

"The intent is right. The motivation is right. But some of the proposals will be tricky to implement," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

The mayor-elect's promises include:

* Insisting that important commission decisions be made in public meetings, not behind closed doors.

* Forbidding commissioners from meeting in private with contractors who are doing city work.

* Requiring departments to disclose all no-bid contracts, contract extensions and contract changes.

* Banning political contributors from receiving no-bid contracts.

* Requiring campaign contributors with city contracts to report the contracts when they make contributions, information that would appear on campaign finance reports.

"It does get to the heart of conflict issues," Westen said of the proposed contractor-reporting requirement. "But it doesn't deal with potential conflicts, when contributors are going after contracts but haven't received them yet."

Westen suggested Villaraigosa should also require disclosure by contributors who are bidding on contracts.

Others, including Lerner of the California Clean Money Campaign, said such disclosure rules "are simply not effective." Lerner said she is encouraged that Villaraigosa has indicated he is willing to study full public financing of campaigns.

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